Graphic Novel Teaching: Reading with Fluency

A few weeks ago I put out a call, as you can see below, for questions about graphic novels readers.

Tonya Girouard posted the following question:

I created this quick chart to capture my thoughts on fluency in the graphic novel format.

A quick draft of a strategy chart you could use with your readers as you coach their fluency with reading graphic novels and comic books.
  • Balloon Shape– It’s important to pay attention to the shape of the speech balloon as there are no speaker tags in the graphic novel format. There’s no need for a creator to write “…said Enzo.” when the reader can clearly see Enzo in the panel with his mouth open and a speech balloon coming out of it. The shape, thickness, and type of line used to create the speech balloons replace the adverbs and verbs that might usually be included in a speaker tag. There will be no “yelled” or “whispered.”
  • Bold Words– Words tend to be bolded a lot in the graphic novel format. It’s not uncommon for several words within a speech balloons to be bold. It will be important to coach readers on how emphasizing different words within a sentence can alter the meaning.
  • Punctuation– Ah, fluency’s old friend punctuation…you’ll find the usual suspects in graphics novels. I’m willing to bet you’ll find more exclamation points than you do in a typical prose chapter book. There’s a lot of action going on! Your readers may be less familiar with how punctuation like ellipses and dashes affect a reader’s expression. Ellipses may be used in a few different ways. So it will be important for a reader to be flexible. Ellipses might be used to communicate a speaker trailing off, a pause in speech, or even a “beat” before beginning to speak. Dashes could be used to demonstrate that a person was cut off by another speaker while they were talking.
  • “Balloon Phrasing”– I think I came up with this term? If you’ve heard it elsewhere previously, please let me know. What I mean by “balloon phrasing” is how the dialogue is broken up into multiple speech balloons and how these balloons are connected. Read over the excerpt from Kat Leyh’s Snapdragon below:

In the first panel, the speech balloons are “butted” up against each other. You might also say they are conjoined speech balloons. Kat Leyh chose place “I’ll even show you how.” in the second speech balloon. This gives the readers a sense of how the character is phrasing or grouping the sentences as she is speaking. This should be reflected in the reader’s phrasing.

In the second panel, you’ll notice a connector between balloons. This can mean a few different things: a pause, a subject change, or simply the creation of a new section of text. The ellipses in the text help communicate pause in this instance. In the first panel on the second page, think about why there is a connector between “Be back here at six A.M.” and “BLECH.”

I hope this post provides you with some ways you might coach readers as they work on reading fluently in graphic novels!

-Written by Hand

Writing Workshop Teaching: More Purpose, More Authenticity

This week my kiddos will complete their second nonfiction chapter book. One of my major focuses for this second cycle through the writing process was to embed more authenticity and purpose into the writing process.

To center purpose and authenticity, I decided to:

  • Focus on the Writing Process — Several times through each of my minilessons, I aimed to name the stage of the writing process that most kids will be in during that day’s workshop. My kiddos had a lot of confusion between planning, drafting, revising, and publishing. I wanted to make sure that I clarified the various steps, why we might use them, and how they help us in our writing. I’m so happy that most of my class (not everyone yet!) can now discuss where they are in the writing process.
  • Set Clear Expectations & Goals –Before my kiddos began revising, I distributed a packet that would help them gain a clear understanding of where they are and where they need to go with informational writing. This packet contained:
    • The draft & published versions of their first nonfiction chapter books.
    • A writing checklist that focuses on the qualities of writing. I use the Up the Ladder Informational Checklist created by my former colleagues at TCRWP.
    • A writing process checklist that I created. You can find it here.
  • Provide an Authentic Audience –For their first nonfiction book, I surprised my class by taking them to go read their books to third graders. For our second book, my kids knew right from the start that they would be expected to read their books to younger kids. The difference I have seen between the first and second cycle through the writing process is immense. Most of my class is driven to make their book the best it can be.
  • Reflect on Growth — After each writing piece, my students create a flipgrid video in which they discuss what they’ve learned. They might talk about a strategy they’ll be SURE to use next time OR something they did that they will NEVER do again. I provide some possible talking points, but nothing is mandatory. These largely freeform videos provide me insight that a rubric can never provide. I also ask each writer to read aloud a page from their story. Kids who are the quietest sometimes become the biggest ham in front of a camera! I was smiling ear to ear when I sat down to watch these.

As I move into my next unit, I’m going to continue to focus on the items above. If these ideas can be helpful in your classroom, try them out and let me know how things go!

Writing Workshop Teaching: “Catch-up” Day

Last week, instead of teaching what I planned, I had a “catch-up” day in writing workshop. You might also call this a repertoire day. Here’s how it went:

“Writers, I’ve decided that instead of teaching you something new today, I simply want to remind you of everything we’ve already learned.” There were some puzzled and surprised glances between my kiddos.

“Who can find the chart that would help you if you wanted to remind yourself about the “bricks” of information you might add to your chapters?” Hands shot up and RJ pointed to the “Bricks” of information chart.

“Stand up and go touch it. Everyone track RJ to see if he picks the same chart you would choose.” The class watched as RJ touched the appropriate chart. I had RJ physically touch the chart, because it it leaves no doubt for any of my kiddos which chart RJ is choosing.

I continued in this vein asking,

  • Which chart could I use to help me write a hook for a chapter?
  • Which chart will help me add end punctuation?
  • What if I want to revise?

I wrapped up by saying, “I don’t want to keep you any longer. On your way from the meeting area to your seat, I want you to touch the chart that is going to help you get started today.”

As students transitioned, I voiced over saying “Bianca is going to writing some hooks today. Smart choice. Oh, nice! Brandon wants to check his punctuation.”

This quick lesson reminded kids to use the charts in the room as tools to help them write, provided options for the type of work kids might do today, and set writers up to be in charge of their own writing.

For the rest of the week, my midworkshops focused on kids finding a chart to help them or celebrating a writer who went up to a chart independently. I’m doing everything I can to help my kiddos become more independent, so I can confer with writers.

To see my charts, inspired by the TCRWP unit Up the Ladder: Information Writing, check out my original tweet here.

Graphic Novel Rec #14: Our Little Kitchen

Creator: Jillian Tamaki

Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers

Our Little Kitchen won the Eisner Award for Best Publication for Early Readers (up to age 8) this year so I had to check it out. This story is based on the Tamaki’s experience volunteering at a small community kitchen in Brooklyn. I found this text to be charming and I believe it will easily find a home in many primary classrooms. This book is perfect for those who love cooking, community and comics!

Check out my inforgraphic? cartoon? below to see some of my other thoughts.

Teaching Considerations:

  • Genre: Realistic Fiction with bits of informational text embedded (recipes)…so hybrid?
  • Units of Study: Small moments, How-to writing, realistic fiction
  • Grades: 1st Grade, 2nd Grade, 3rd Grade

Graphic Novel Rec #13: Wynd Book One: The Flight of the Prince

Creators: James Tynion IV, Michael Dialynas, & Aditya Bidikar

Publisher: BOOM! Studios

I love fantasy books. I love series. I love gay characters in literature. All of this means I was destined to love Wynd. The world of Wynd reminds me of The City of Ember. (The book NOT the movie!) The main characters are isolated from the rest of the world, there’s a journey through tunnels, and the general uncertainty of who to believe and what is actually true.

Tynion and Dialynas don’t just worldbuild, however, they develop the characters. Wynd, the main character, hides his true self for fear of being ostracized or even worse. He yearns for a “normal” life and cares deeply for his found family. Being gay is part of who Wynd is, it’s not his totality. This story is not about him being gay. He’s just happens to be a gay character in the midst of a fantasy story. I appreciate this approach to inclusion.

The party is fleshed out by his best friend, a prince, and the boy of his dreams. These characters are thrown together by circumstance and don’t mesh that well…and the drama pulls you in. The characters are all brimming with personality. The character designs and body language that Dialynas creates for each character contribute to this as much as Tynion’s writing.

Dialynas draws Pipetown, our initial setting, with a bit of grime. This helps the setting feel more believable. Dialynas is equally adept at drawing the wondrous, magical moments as he is the dark, terrifying bits of the story…which is crucial in any great fantasy story.

Wynd’s story will continue in the upcoming Wynd-Book Two: The Secret of the Wings.

If you have readers who enjoyed Faith Erin Hicks’ The Nameless City trilogy or Mark Siegel’s 5 Worlds series, then the Wynd series should be up next for them!

Teaching Considerations:

  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Units of Study: Fantasy, Fiction, Series
  • Grades: 4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade, 7th Grade

Graphic Novel Rec #12: The Sprite and the Gardener

Creators: Rii Abrego & Joe Whitt

Publisher: Oni Press

“And things are still just fine. More or less.”

This is how Abrego & Whitt set up The Sprite and the Gardener. This book has been described as “gentle fantasy” which means a fantasy story that doesn’t involve fighting or violence of any kind. If you’ve read The Tea Dragon Society, then you’re familiar with this genre.

In The Sprite and the Gardener we learn that sprites used to be the caretakers of all flora, but then humans took over as the keepers of gardens. So, what are the sprites to do? This story follows Wisteria who wants to help humans tend to their gardens. Will things work out? You’ll have to read the story to find out.

You could read this story at a surface level, but if you look closer you’ll find a deeper story. Abrego & Whitt weave a story that teaches the theme that “Change can be good.” That just because something is different doesn’t mean that it’s bad. As this is a quick read, I could see children reading it multiple times to get to deeper interpretations of the text.

The character designs of the sprites are flora-influenced. I imagine aspiring illustrators doodling their own designs of sprites after begin inspired by Abrego & Whitt’s characters. What would a tulip inspired sprite look like? A dandelion sprite?

Abrego & Whitt are also creative when it comes to page layout. They are thoughtful in the way they use irregular panel shapes and borderless panels to infuse scenes with energy and emotion. Their choice of frames also help make their pages dynamic. They shift quickly from long-distance, medium, and close-up shots of moments. I hope to see more work by both of these creators soon.

“But times have changed since then. And things are just fine. In fact, they’re better than ever.

Teaching Considerations:

  • Genre: gentle fantasy
  • Units of Study: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Grades: 3rd Grade, 4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade

Graphic Novel Teaching: Previewing with the Lens of Genre

Previewing is a habit that helps readers set themselves up to read. Previewing allows us to come to the text with predictions of how we think the story might go or what we might learn. As we read on, we confirm or revise our predictions.

Graphic novels are frequently grouped all together even though there may be a myriad of genres represented. By adding the lens of genre to a reader’s preview, they are setting themselves up to bring their literary knowledge of genre with them into the text.

Graphic Novel Teaching: Harmonizing Visual Storytelling & Art

While visiting one of my partner schools, I worked with teachers on helping writers to be more purposeful with the text they include in their graphic novels.

The ideas I share in the video could be helpful for writers to think about in the planning stages (thumbnails & script) or this could be purposeful revision work.

Writers SHOULD NOT be adding text boxes, speech balloons, or thought bubbles just to have more writing in their graphic novel. More words doesn’t make a graphic novel stronger. Not every panel needs words. In fact, there are even some wordless graphic novels.

If you’re teaching a unit on writing graphic novels, let me know how it’s going by either emailing me,, or on twitter, @writtenbyhand.

Graphic Novel Rec #11: Class Act

Creator: Jerry Craft

Publisher: Quill Tree Books & Harper Alley

I’m going to be honest. I held off reading Class Act. I didn’t hold off because I wasn’t interested or I didn’t think it would be good. I held off, because I knew that with the success of New Kid tons of people were going to check it out even without me hyping it. That being said, I’m so glad I finally did read it.

If you’re not familiar with this book, Class Act is the follow-up to Jerry Craft’s Newberry Medal, Kirkus Prize, Coretta Scott King Author Award winning book New Kid. New Kid is a realistic fiction story based on the experiences of Craft and his two sons as they attended private schools.

In Class Act, Craft tells a story that provides a different perspective than found in most literature. I realize this is a “different” perspective for me, because I’m a white man. I can just imagine how powerful it is for young students of color to read this book and feel seen. I imagine it’s similar to how I felt reading Flamer.

Class Act has a wide cast of characters which create a rich world for Craft to tell his story in. You could read Class Act without having read New Kid, but why would you not want to read New Kid?!

My favorite bit of cartooning with Class Act are the comics that the character Jordan creates. These “kid-created” comics provide a way for Jordan to reflect on the events of the book and share his thinking. This is a powerful storytelling technique that adds more depth to Jordan.

Teaching Considerations:

  • Genre: Realistic Fiction
  • Units of Study: Realistic fiction, Social Issues
  • Grades: 4th Grade, 5th Grade, Middle School